#130: Pen Names and Shame

Dear Story Nurse,

What’s your opinion on using a pen name for some of one’s work, but not other work?

I have found myself wondering if I ought to use a pen name when trying to publish certain kinds of writing that’s different from what I have out there right now. Some of it is R-rated (for reasons of sexiness), and some of it is just stuff that feels unprofessional or “off brand” but will pay the rent (i.e. writing listicles for ListVerse or similar ‘clickbait’-y sites).

I’m a bit torn. I feel like, maybe if I am embarrassed of something I’m creating, I shouldn’t put it out into the world? If I cannot truly stand by my work (because I think click-bait taps into compulsive behaviors, encourages snap judgements, and doesn’t necessarily reward good writing or thoughtful reading; or because I’m not sure of the possible ethics of writing the kind of erotica I’m scribbling), maybe I just shouldn’t put it out there. Is a pen name a cowardly cop-out?

Or, maybe I’m embarrassed only because I am judging myself too harshly? The erotica I’m writing is unusual (i.e. fantasy-ish, impossible irl [it’s furry / anthro]) , but the scenes are consensual and don’t validate anything I’m opposed to. And the embarrassment just comes from being different or “weird.”

Likewise, the content of the click-bait I’ve toyed with isn’t against my beliefs, even though it isn’t my ideal style. Maybe I’ve internalized some classist ideas about art and commerce; that I “should” only write things that are artful and completely true to my spirit without taking money into consideration (#shitrichpeoplesay).

Even though I could really use an extra $100 / week, perhaps my embarrassment comes from needing money, even if it’s from less-than-ideal work, rather than embarrassment from feeling like a hypocrite by writing for listicle sites when I’m not a fan of the way they work or the rhetoric they encourage.

Anyway, that’s my core dilemma: I feel embarrassed about these kinds of writing, even though I also enjoy it, and I have opportunities to make money from it. My embarrassment makes me think I should use a pen name, so that if I ever try to publish serious work under my own name, editors will only see my current publications in more professional outlets. But, maybe I should just be bold and own whatever I create? Or maybe this is a sign I shouldn’t publish these works at all?

Just wondering your take,

Anthem (yep, using a pen name here too) (they/them)

P.S. Thank you for answering my previous question! With your encouragement, I did polish and submit some of my #ownvoices horror & dark fantasy stories with disabled protagonists, and I’ve had some success! Possibly an interesting wrinkle to this: I used my own name with those pieces and didn’t feel embarrassed at all.

I’ve written “it’s okay to be a minority of a minority” in the front of a lot of my notebooks. So, just, so you know. Your advice has been very empowering for me.

Dear Anthem,

I’m so gratified to know that my earlier advice was useful to you. Thank you for telling me! And it’s fantastic that you’ve had success writing and selling those stories.

Your letter sounds like you’ve almost talked yourself into believing you’re ashamed of what you want to write, just because you’ve had the idea of using a pen name for it. You talk around a lot of reasons why you might be feeling ashamed. But is that really what’s going on, or is it just an association you have with pen names?

In case it’s the latter, here are some of the many reasons someone might write under a pen name:

  • Marketing. An author’s name on a cover sets a reader’s expectations, so authors who write in multiple genres or for different age groups sometimes use multiple pen names for that purpose. Examples: Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant.
  • Collaborating. Many pairs or groups of writers use shared pen names for convenience: Examples: Christina Lauren, Ilona Andrews, James S.A. Corey.
  • Needing to reboot a writing career. Publishers and bookstores use algorithms to determine expected sales. A writer who’s had a few books do badly, who now looks like a bad bet according to those algorithms, might use a new name to get a fresh start.
  • Experimenting. Sometimes you just want to try something new, without the expectations attached to the name you’ve used in the past. Example: J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith.
  • Privacy or safety. Authors who have been stalked or threatened, schoolteachers who write erotica, and many others may want the security of not putting their real names in the spotlight.
  • Avoidance of bigotry. Women may feel their work will do better if they use pen names that are regarded as gender-neutral or masculine. People with unusual or distinctly ethnic names may opt for those that sound more familiar or are easier to spell and pronounce in the places where they’re publishing their books.
  • Quantity of output. If you crank out ten or twelve books a year, you may want to put them under multiple names just to keep from exhausting your readers.
  • Aesthetics. Don’t like your name? Use one you like better.

None of this is anything to be ashamed of. It’s simply part of what you have to take into calculation when building a career.

I’ve published some work under a pen name that very few people know, not because I’m ashamed of my writing but because it is, as you say, off-brand. It’s true that there are downsides. I want to include those projects in my year-end writing stats; I want to promote them to my friends and squee about how proud I am of them. Keeping my distance is hard. But if I didn’t have that pen name, I wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing that work at all. My pen name frees me to explore that side of my creativity.

If you do feel shame around some aspects of writing, and that’s expressing itself as an interest in publishing under another name, then certainly the core feeling is worth exploring and addressing. But when you do that, keep in mind that a pen name might be a tool you can use to liberate yourself from your shame and allow yourself to write what you want to write. Writing under a pen name is better than not writing at all.

Either your feelings of shame are distracting you from making practical career decisions around pen names or your thoughts about pen names are distracting you from dealing with your feelings of shame. You need to figure out what the real underlying issue is and tackle it directly. Keep coming back to that key metric: “Is what I’m doing helping me write or stopping me from writing?” Always move toward writing if you can, and be wary of any sudden out-of-nowhere thought or emotion that claims to be so important that you have to stop writing to deal with it. Those can happen and legitimately need to be addressed, but they can also be mental tangles that occupy you endlessly for no real purpose.

Stay focused, and happy writing!


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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